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Future of Cooperative Education

At ACE’s Institute in Vancouver, participants challenged the co-op education field to expand and refine the co-op education toolkit to meet the growing co-op hunger and co-op development needs of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities.

At ACE, Co-op Leaders Call on Movement to Expand the Co-op Education Toolkit

By Steve Dubb

Last month, about 70 people gathered in Vancouver, Canada along with another 100 online at the annual Association of Cooperative Education (ACE) conference. ACE Institute may be annual, but, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the first time in three years that cooperative educators had gathered in person—and ACE’s first-ever hybrid conference. 

A lot has happened in the past three years. The 2022 Institute reflected that. The theme of this year’s conference—Sharing Our Stories: Justice, Reconciliation & Co-op Education—spoke to the need and desire of cooperative educators to respond to rising social movements and the new waves of co-op development taking place today in Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. This meant considering both what co-op educators can contribute and addressing blind spots in the movement.

ACE is a venerable organization. The first Institute took place in 1952. A dozen years later, in Kansas City, Missouri, participants struck a committee to create ACE. The first ACE board was installed at the 1965 Institute in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Among the founding board members was Harold Chapman, who later would be named a recipient of the Order of Canada. Chapman received the award in honor of the role he had played throughout his life in Saskatchewan’s co-op movement; Chapman turned 105 this past April. 

Two decades later, at the 1986 Institute, an agenda shows that the speakers included at least two future US Cooperative Hall of Fame members, Walden Swanson and Dr. Ann Hoyt. At that Institute, one plenary panel offered a debate on the question of “Cooperative Principles … Are They a Myth.” ACE, in short, has long been a space where core questions of cooperative education can be—and are— challenged, questioned, and refined.

What is the Role of Co-op Education Today? 

As in 1986, this year’s Institute had a plenary session that interrogated co-op principles. The precise question was quite different, but it had a similarly broad scope, namely: Should the goal of co-op education be to incorporate co-operative businesses or do co-op education principles have broader applications in the social impact space? 

Addressing this question were four panellists—two from the U.S. and two from Canada. From the U.S. were two ACE board members, Gary Hampton, also of the Ajani group of co-op developers; and Charity Schmidt, who is housed at the Center for Cooperatives at the University of Wisconsin and coordinates technical assistance for the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition. From Canada, participating in the conversation were two Toronto-based co-op activists: Christine Clarke, co-op educator and cofounder of the Freedom Dreams Co-operative Education; and Nathi Zamisa, project director and housing co-op organizer at Housing Our University Students Equitably (HOUSE), which, although based in Toronto, works with students nationally. 

Clarke moderated the conversation and introduced the topic by noting that cooperation is already happening in BIPOC communities. The question for co-ops, she noted, should not be about how to impose the co-op model in BIPOC communities, but rather, “Is there something we have in our toolkit that can support what BIPOC communities are doing?”

Zamisa discussed his group’s work with First Nations students to create a housing co-op at Yukon University in Whitehorse. The work, he notes, starts with designing facilitation to be inclusive. This, he continues, requires answering many questions. “What kind of activities? Is it codesigned charrettes? Journey-mapping workshops? How do we keep that permanent and maintain that culture?” Zamisa added that, “We understand we could build 80 units. But the key is how do we integrate these elements long before the development.”

Hampton and Schmidt affirmed this principle in their own work. Hampton noted that it was important not to lead with the business model, but rather to lead with “what can the business model address.” Similarly, Schmidt said that the mission needed to drive the work, not the co-op model itself.

Telling Our Stories

The theme of the conference centered on “Telling Our Stories.” Hampton emphasized that storytelling is in fact a core component of co-op development and co-op education work. “We don’t do a good job of telling the stories,” Hampton observed. “That educational piece must be embedded in the front end and throughout the co-operative itself.”

Clarke agreed. “Storytelling is key. This is where co-op education is falling short, especially in BIPOC communities.” Citing the work of Dr. Caroline Shenaz Hossein—based at the University of Toronto—on the cooperative practices that sustained the Underground Railroad, Clarke noted that these are the kind of stories that inspire co-op development in BIPOC communities. “No one says it is not about incorporating co-ops,” she said, but she added that a narrow focus on incorporating businesses misses the broader social context.

Building Partnerships

The need to develop partnerships was also part of the conversation. This included the need to connect co-op education with the broader movement for a solidarity economy. As Schmidt put it: “Education isn’t just about starting a business here. How do we build the solidarity economy, with land trusts, etc.?” Clarke challenged co-op educators and developers more broadly to work to expand the co-op toolkit. This, she added, could involve partnerships with DEI [diversity, equity, inclusion] professionals with lived experience and academics. “Can we start to build cooperative, solidarity economy resources where that is all in-house? Plan and dream and scheme – let’s build that commons together along those lines,” she implored.

Co-ops in Indigenous Communities

Many conversations took place both within the sessions, and often between sessions, at Institute. Before the panel that Clarke moderated, an earlier session focused on Indigenous co-op development within the Arctic Co-ops network. In the Canadian north, there are presently 33 co-op stores. Mary Rose Tetitchi hailed from Tetilt Service Co-op in Fort McPherson, Canada, a Gwich’in settlement in the Northwest Territories with a population of around 900 people; Tracy Rispin of Old Crow Co-op is also from a Gwich’in community in the Yukon Territory, with fewer than 300 people. They were joined by Doug Kebokee, director of economic development of the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, who is seeking to make his community the 34th co-op in the Arctic Co-ops network. 

Both Tetichi and Rispin made it clear that co-op operations in small Indigenous communities, even with support from the national office of Arctic Co-ops in Winnipeg, were hard. It is also very rewarding. Both of their co-ops are now profitable, with Tetilt Service Co-op crossing the million-dollar sales mark in 2021 for the first time. For her part, Rispin enthused that, “Co-op is my baby. We are going to build self-sufficiency in our community.” 

More Conversations

All told, a lot of ground was covered. Hampton and Clarke, along with Esther West from the United States and Obiageli (Obie) Agusiegbe of the Black Women Professional Worker Co-op from Canada, also participated in a panel on co-op development in BIPOC communities, which drew out many common themes across the border dividing Canada and the United States. West, who authored a landmark study, Latinx Co-op Power in the U.S. two years ago, called for a change in language in the field from “co-op developers” to “co-op organizers.” Agusiegebe, for her part, discussed the need to build cooperatives on African traditions, such as susu lending. Known more formally as ROSCAs (rotating savings and credit associations), creating co-ops, Agusiegbe emphasized, required partnerships that understand the complementary role of formal and informal cooperative economies.

Breakout sessions covered many other aspects of co-op education. This included a brief update from the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation; a session from Kyle White of Co-operatives First on lessons learned about online and in-person co-op education across four Canadian provinces; a session on NorWest Community Health Co-op, a consumer co-op based in Manitoba; and a report from Erin Hancock and Rosa Poiner-McKiggan on how the International Centre for Co-operative Management program at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia has changed its education curricula to incorporate justice, equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility in their center’s mid-career master’s program. 

Conference-goers also had the opportunity to tour local co-ops in the Vancouver region, visiting three local worker co-ops: Shift Delivery Co-op, which serves as a “last mile” eco-friendly delivery service; Wood Shop Workers’ Cooperative, which creates furniture and other wood products out of reclaimed wood; and VALU (Vancouver Artisans’ Labor Union) Co-operative, a unionized artisans’ co-op located in the city’s Chinatown district.

Recognizing Co-op Education Excellence

In addition to the sessions, the Institute is also a space for co-op educators to mingle, and also a chance to recognize excellence in the movement’s midst. Every year, the Institute provides an opportunity to recognize outstanding achievements in the field.

Each award category has had a name—except the award for Outstanding Contribution to Co-operative Education and Training. This year, the Board made the decision to name that award after longtime ACE member (including 12 years of service on ACE’s board), John Jay College professor, acclaimed author of Collective Courage, and U.S. cooperative hall of fame inductee Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard

Gordon Nembhard’s work was cited through the Institute, and her acceptance of the honor was a highlight of the gathering. Gordon Nembhard also participated extensively in the conference online, including reporting on the work of the International Co-operative Alliance’s Research Committee, on which she remains ACE’s representative.

It is a high bar to receive an ACE award and not every category has an awardee every year. This year, two awards were presented. Erin Hancock, who had won the William Hlusko award in 2014, which recognizes cooperative achievement before the age of 35, became ACE’s first recipient of the Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard Award for Outstanding Contribution to Co-operative Education and Training. Hancock’s award recognized her deep work in supporting co-op education and research work in Canada and beyond, including at the International Centre for Co-op Management at St. Mary’s in Halifax.

The second award went to Ron Hantz, who received the John Logue ACE Award, which recognizes an individual or organization whose educational programs, technical assistance or research acts as a catalyst for change by creating innovative cooperatives that promote a democratic work environment and economic sustainability for the people and communities. Hantz was specifically recognized for his work in supporting networking among the Black co-op community in the U.S. through his leadership and tireless devotion to the building of the Network for Developing Conscious Communities.

See You in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2023!

ACE is also building for the future. At the annual general member meeting, three incumbent board members were reelected to three-year terms, while two new board members won one-year terms to fill out two vacated terms. These new members are: Hélène Turcotte, a co-op business strategist based in Sherbrooke, Quebec and Emily Nail, executive director of the North Carolina Cooperative Council. One of those two vacated seats was vacated by long-time ACE board member Cathy Statz. Statz, with her husband, is moving to Poland, but will continue to participate on the board in a nonvoting President emeritus capacity. 

At the conference, too, the date and location of the 2023 Institute were announced. Led by board member Jaime Cuevas, in 2023, ACE returns for the first time in 10 years to Puerto Rico! The date for the 2023 Institute is August 7-10. Please stay tuned for more updates.

For more information, please email ACE administrator Michael Norris at Board members can be reached at